Prologue Magazine

Our Story

How the National Archives Evolved Over 75 Years of Change and Challenges

Summer 2009, Vol. 41, No. 2

By James Worsham


A workman stands between the columns during the construction of the National Archives Building in 1934

A workman stands between the columns during the construction of the National Archives Building in 1934. (64-NAC-207)

Timeline of Archives history, by Benjamin Guterman

June 19, 1934.

This was an especially busy day for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the President of the United States.

The chief executive gave his 131st press conference, but made little news. Then he held a cabinet meeting, met with a number of individual lawmakers, and left just before midnight for an overnight trip to New Haven, Connecticut, where the next day he would receive an honorary degree at Yale University.

Congress had adjourned the day before and left him with many bills to sign. One of them created the Federal Communications Commission. Another was an emergency appropriations bill. Yet another one dealt with how the Post Office should deal with letters with no or insufficient postage.

Sometime during the day, he also signed legislation creating the National Archives, whose massive headquarters in downtown Washington, D.C., was already rising along Pennsylvania Avenue.

The idea of a national archives, a repository for the most important records of the nation, had been debated in and out of Congress for decades. Now, finally, legislation creating that entity had arrived at the President's desk after the nation, already more than a century and a half old, had lost many of its early records to fires, mishandling, improper storage, and other natural and man-made events.

Archives workers push a cart of Veterans Administration records into a vacuum chamber for fumigation in June 1936

Prior to the establishment of the Archives, many records were poorly stored. Here Archives workers push a cart of Veterans Administration records into a vacuum chamber for fumigation in June 1936. (64-NA-77)

Roosevelt would soon come to play an important role in nurturing the Archives in its early years by setting it on its course as the nation's record keeper.

He likely would not recognize the National Archives of the 21st century, with its leadership role in federal records management, in the classification and declassification of government documents, and in finding ways to ensure that the government can preserve the electronic records of today as well as of the future.

Today, the role of the National Archives continues to evolve.

It remains a "must" stop for visitors to Washington who want to see America's founding documents, but it has also expanded into a museum destination that brings the history of America alive through other documents and artifacts in its holdings.

It is the first place many people come to learn their family history and an essential resource for genealogists everywhere.

Its holdings of records of government agencies, federal court cases, and presidential administrations make it a mother lode of information for lawyers, journalists, and historians.

Its commitment to helping the public understand the importance of its holdings has made it the nation's civic educator through its widespread education programs.

Its network of presidential libraries, regional archives, and federal records centers has given the National Archives a deep reach into America, with 44 facilities in 18 states and the District of Columbia, from Atlanta to Anchorage and Boston to Los Angeles.

Roosevelt probably didn't envision such an agency, but of all the Presidents of the modern era, he was the one who was most influential in establishing the broad outlines of the agency. But decades and decades of debate, delay, and doubt preceded his signature on June 19, 1934.

A Young Nation Creates History, But Is in Danger of Losing It

The National Archives building under construction, March 1, 1934.

The National Archives building under construction, March 1, 1934. (121-BCP-111c-62)

The Declaration of Independence is today secure in an argon-filled aluminum and titanium encasement, with sophisticated electronic equipment monitoring the climate inside.

But in its early days, the Declaration, like many other government documents, was rolled up and unrolled frequently and transported from city to city as the capital moved or as threats warranted. No government-wide authority existed to ensure that these important records were safely preserved for posterity, and occasional fires in government facilities destroyed important early records.

Over the years, the State Department became the "unofficial" national archives for important federal documents, including the Declaration and the Constitution, which the department turned over to the Library of Congress in 1921.

As the professionalization of archivists and historians occurred late in the 19th century, the calls for a national archives increased. The American Historical Association was founded in 1884, creating a forum for discussion about the need for a national archives and an entity around which those supporting one could coalesce.

The leading figure in the fight to establish the archives was Professor J. Franklin Jameson of Brown University, the editor of the American Historical Review. In 1895, he submitted to the association a program for the systematic collection and selective publication of U.S. historical source materials. Three years later, a plan for a "hall of records" was sent to Congress, but the lawmakers had little interest.

The Center Market, site of the future National Archives Building.

The Center Market, site of the future National Archives Building. (83-G-6124)

Publication of a Guide to the Archives of the Government of the United States in Washington in 1904 helped nudge the movement for a federal archives, but there was little movement until 1921, when a fire in the Commerce Department destroyed the census records of 1890—raising the need for a suitable place to safely preserve the most important records of the nation.

Finally, in 1926, Congress appropriated initial funding to build such a building. The funds were later increased, and by 1941 it was reported that the building, with adjustments and fully equipped, cost $12,250,794 (more than $177 million in today's dollars). A prominent site halfway between the Capitol and the White House, along Washington's two parade routes, between Constitution and Pennsylvania Avenues and Seventh and Ninth Streets was designated for the building.

In 1930 President Herbert Hoover named a panel to draw up specifications for the building to guide the architect, John Russell Pope. Ground was broken on the two-square-block area in September 1931, and Hoover laid the cornerstone just a few weeks before his term ended in 1933. There began to rise an elegant, stately building, complete with elaborate sculptural adornment, in the neoclassical revival style.


Timeline of Archives history

Finally, a Building, But No Agency


President Herbert Hoover celebrates the laying of the building s cornerstone

President Herbert Hoover celebrates the laying of the building s cornerstone on February 20, 1933. (64-NA-136)

Although there was a building under construction for a national archives, Congress had yet to create the agency itself.

Roosevelt recognized the need for a national archives when he entered office, but it was not high on his list of things to do in the first 100 days or in his first year, as the Great Depression worsened and people were left jobless and homeless and with little hope.

In time, the President put his closest political adviser, Louis Howe, on to the job of getting authorization for an archives through Congress. Although the historical community and members of Congress might have had differing views, they were quickly resolved, and Roosevelt signed legislation creating the National Archives as soon as it cleared Congress, on June 19, 1934.

"It had been a long and tortuous struggle, and there would be more struggles to come in developing the new agency," wrote Donald R. McCoy, author of The National Archives: America's Ministry of Documents, 1934–1968.

"No one involved in the movement for a national archives, however, questioned in 1934 or later that it had all been worthwhile," McCoy wrote. "Why should they? After all, they all well knew that the past was prologue, in this case, to a significant ending."

The "significant ending" was also a beginning, and now the institution that Jameson and others had so long fought for had the interest and attention of the President of the United States. Roosevelt would have very much to say about what the Archives would be in its early years.

The Archives' First Patron: FDR, Archivist and Architect

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was assistant secretary of the Navy, governor of New York, and President of the United States, but he also fancied himself an architect and an archivist, among many other things.

"Even before he could appoint an Archivist, he began direct oversight of the new agency's activities," wrote Robert Clark, supervisory archivist at the Roosevelt Presidential Library, in Winter 2006 Prologue.

Roosevelt believed, Clark wrote, that the archives should not only be the repository of "materials of lasting historical value" but also of the operational records of the federal government. This meant that the estimates for stack space in the new building were much too low, so FDR approved the proposal to fill the planned inner courtyard of the building with additional stack space, which doubled its storage capacity.

Later, after he had appointed the first Archivist of the United States, R.D.W. Connor, a North Carolina educator and historian, Roosevelt got involved in staff appointments, including suggesting that an African American be hired to deal with records pertaining to African Americans.

R.D.W. Conner, the first Archivist of the United States

R.D.W. Conner, the first Archivist of the United States. (64-NA-1-37)

Acquisition and disposal policies also captured his attention from time to time.

"I am delighted that you are going into the matter of the disposal of so-called useless Government papers," he wrote Connor at one point. "I hope you will keep me in touch, as you know my real interest in this subject."

The first years of the National Archives were mainly ones of hiring personnel, organizing the agency, and waiting for the headquarters building to be completed. Organizational lines were drawn, position descriptions were created, and lines of authority established. Staff started moving into the building in 1935, even though it was not officially completed until 1938.

Along with the creation of the National Archives in 1934, Congress created the National Historical Publications Commission (NHPC), whose mission was to see that historical records not in the holdings of the National Archives were properly preserved. A year later, Congress passed the Federal Register Act, which gave the Archives the job of publishing the government's rules, regulations, and orders.

Even though the National Archives was now up and running in its new building, Roosevelt had not lost interest in archives and architecture. He was thinking of his post-presidency and, in the late 1930s, during his second and what he thought was his last term, decided to build his own presidential library to house and open to the public the records of his years in the White House.

It would be built, he decided, with private funds on the grounds of his estate in Hyde Park, New York. When it was complete, it would be turned over to the federal government to run—a move that established how presidential libraries are financed and administered to this day. Roosevelt's library opened in 1941, but he did not enjoy a post-presidency there. Seeing war on the horizon, he ran for a third and fourth term, thus becoming the only President to have a presidential library while still in office.

After Connor's resignation in 1941, Roosevelt appointed the second Archivist of the United States, Solon J. Buck, who had been an assistant to Connor. At the time of Connor's resignation, the Archives staff had grown to 438, of whom 14 were in uniform.

One of Buck's strong suits was records administration, and he became involved in all the agency's activities. It was a skill that would serve the Archives well during the war that loomed in 1941.

"Indeed," as archivist Rodney Ross wrote in Guardian of Heritage, a book published for the Archives' 50th anniversary in 1984, "the leadership of the Society of American Archivists stressed that one of the most important war-related tasks for the profession would be to control the tremendous output of records which was sure to be generated."

The Archives, however, was to play a more important, more intriguing role in World War II.

Timeline of Archives history

"Fort Archives" Draws Its Weapons As Part of the Wartime Efforts

When America went to war after the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941, the National Archives was not high on anyone's list of vital federal agencies. As one high-ranking Archives official wrote to Archivist Buck:

"The National Archives is looked upon generally by the public and by officials and employees of other government agencies as an organization of parasites of no value in the present war effort."

The Archives, however, had been preparing for war many months before Pearl Harbor, making plans for the safekeeping of the most important government documents, in case Washington, DC, became the target of enemy bombers.

Army trucks transporting records to the National Archives

Army trucks transporting records along Constitution Avenue to the National Archives from Schuylkill Arsenal in Philadelphia during World War II.

The National Archives Building, now an imposing presence along the National Mall, seemed to be the safest building for storing records, and they poured into the Archives from all agencies for safekeeping in this "bombproof" building. The press dubbed it "Fort Archives."

Archives officials estimated how many records the Archives building could accommodate, then considered more inland locations where they might send records for safekeeping. In the end, nitrate motion picture films, highly flammable and dangerously toxic when burning, were the only records taken out of the building during the war.

With the need for people in uniform, the size of the staff decreased from a high of 502 in 1942 to 337 by war's end. About 60 were detailed to other agencies. Personnel from other agencies, such as the Navy Department, however, were coming into the Archives to work on the records that were part of the Archives’ holdings.

Archives officials were determined to show that the agency had a valuable role to play in the war effort, even though the Archives barely made it on a list of agencies to be awarded the designation "National Defense Agency."

"This would identify it as a significant contributor to the war effort and award it a commensurate priority for funding and personnel," wrote Anne Bruner Eales in a Summer 2003 Prologue article on the Archives' role in World War II.

The Archives, moreover, had something of great value to war planners: War Department records from 1789 to 1918—80 percent of which had been generated during World War I. It also had detailed maps of Europe as well as the Pacific, and war planners were able to use these to plan their strategic offensive against the Axis powers.

"When the military was looking for information about a certain mountain pass in enemy territory, the Archives provided a detailed map sent home after World War I by a former consular attaché," Eales wrote. "Meteorological records, in constant demand for the study of weather history in strategic areas, were particularly valuable in planning for the landings in Normandy."

In early 1942, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of today's Central Intelligence Agency, moved into the building, sealing off some areas of the building as "restricted" because of the secrecy the OSS needed as it studied maps of Europe.

"This 'highly classified material' being perfected at the National Archives was a set of maps of beaches that would soon be known as 'Utah' and 'Omaha,'" Eales wrote. A few months before D-day, high-ranking officers from U.S. Allies gathered at the Archives to see the OSS's exhibit of equipment that would be used on those beaches in Operation Overlord.

Moviemakers, too, came to the National Archives to get material for wartime productions. Newsreels used Archives footage of U.S. military leaders. The Navy established a direct telephone line to the Archives.

"The National Archives may be a depository for supposedly 'dead records,' but because of the war they have come to life and are doing their share to win the conflict," reported the Washington Star on July 18, 1943.

One of the Archives' biggest challenges was to prepare for the massive amount of records being created by the services during the war, and records management got increased attention.

Today, the Archives holdings of World War II records include such documents as the German and Japanese surrender documents, the original Yalta agreement, and the agreements of the Allied chiefs of staff to launch the D-day invasion. But there are also records of individual soldiers and sailors as well as brigades and battleships.

These documents still yield new stories about personal bravery and sacrifices, how government can mobilize itself in an emergency, and the debates within the highest levels of government. Just last year, the Archives published a two-volume set: World War II: Guide to Records Relating to U.S. Military Participation.

During World War II, the National Archives demonstrated its value to the war effort, but it did not spare the agency from the realities of postwar America.

A Postwar National Archives Faces a New World—Bravely

Its patron in the White House, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was dead, and the National Archives was on its own now. There were no more memos from the Oval Office to the Archivist's Office. The government was much bigger, and the Archives a smaller fish in a bigger pond.

Major change came in 1949, when a commission on government reorganization, headed by former President Hoover, recommended to President Harry S. Truman that a new agency, the General Services Administration (GSA), be established to manage government property, records, and supplies and that the National Archives be folded into it.

The new Archivist of the United States, Wayne Grover, a former Archives employee who had been the Army's leading records management officer and was appointed by Truman in 1948, fought the proposal but lost. In any event, the new GSA leadership decided to let Grover run his own shop.

One of Grover's first big projects was to work out a deal with the Library of Congress to transfer the original Declaration of Independence and the original U. S. Constitution to the Archives, where the Bill of Rights already resided.

Archives officials and others had long felt that the three documents belonged together—at the National Archives. But such a historic transfer had to wait for a willing Librarian of Congress and a willing Archivist. By 1951, there were both, and Librarian Luther Evans and Grover worked out a deal.

What gave Grover and Evans the impetus for arrangement was a remark Truman made at the unveiling at the Library of the Declaration and the Constitution in new encasements. The President said he hoped the two documents could someday be displayed alongside the Bill of Rights, which he called "the most important part of the Constitution," Archives historian Milton Gustafson recalled in his Prologue article " Travels of the Charters of Freedom."

The transfer was made on December 13, 1952, as the two encased documents were placed on mattresses inside a heavily guarded armored Marine Corps personnel carrier and taken, with much ceremony, to the Archives, where they were carried up the Constitution Avenue steps into the Rotunda.

Shortly thereafter, the Archives began referring to the three documents collectively as the Charters of Freedom, and the Rotunda is today one of Washington's most popular visitor destinations.

Timeline of Archives history

No Longer a Free Agent, But Growing Anyway

Within the GSA, the National Archives and Records Service (NARS) was about to expand—quite a bit over the next several decades.

Immediately, the GSA delegated the records management mission it had been assigned to the National Archives. That put the Archives into a position of a records servicing and management agency as well as a historical archives for wartime and postwar records.

But, as predicted, the war had created many records, and more space was needed to store them.

In 1950, the first federal records center was opened in Brooklyn, New York, and by 1955 there were nine more around the country as other agencies agreed to deposit their records there. Today, there are 17.

The Office of the Federal Register was expanding, too. It was now responsible for receiving and preserving copies of laws, regulations, and other acts of Congress and the executive branch agencies.

Vickery Street records center at Fort Worth, Texas, ca. 1950

A truck offloads at the Vickery Street records center at Fort Worth, Texas, ca. 1950. (Office of Regional Records Services)

The Federal Records Act of 1950 consolidated and expanded the GSA's, and by delegation, NARS's authority to manage federal records. The Presidential Libraries Act of 1955 allowed it to accept buildings and land and other equipment as needed for presidential libraries, formally setting up the system of presidential libraries that began with Roosevelt's in 1941.

Truman opened his library in 1957 in Independence, Missouri. Dwight D. Eisenhower followed suit with his library in 1962 on the campus of the Eisenhower Center in Abilene, Kansas, and later that year Hoover opened his library at his birthplace in West Branch, Iowa. Lyndon B. Johnson opened his library on the campus of the University of Texas in Austin in 1971. Today, the system numbers 13, including the George W. Bush library, located temporarily in Lewisville, Texas.

As the years passed, the Archives became more deeply involved in records management and responding to requests from other agencies and the public for access to the growing number of federal records that it was accessioning. In the interest of efficiency and space, it began appraising materials and disposing of temporary records that no longer had any value.

"Ensuring that temporary records were appraised and properly destroyed, which allowed for greater efficiency and economy, was perhaps one of NARS's greatest contributions to the government during Grover's administration," wrote Gregory Bradsher, a longtime staff archivist, in Guardian of Heritage in 1984.

The Archives also began publishing more guides to the records it already had in its possession, including the Guide to Records of the National Archives in 1948, which at the time was considered the definitive roadmap to locating records in the Archives. The Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives is now in its third edition and is one of the agency's top-selling publications.

In 1964, the NHPC received grant-making authority and in 1978 was renamed the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC). Its grants went to preserve and make accessible nonfederal records, and as of 2008, the commission has funded 4,500 projects with $185 million in grants across the country.

Grover served as third Archivist until 1965, and today he remains the longest-serving Archivist. Robert H. Bahmer, a longtime NARS employee who was deputy archivist, became fourth Archivist in 1966, and James B. Rhoads, who had joined the Archives in 1952, succeeded him as fifth Archivist in 1968.

Having grown and expanded quietly over 35 years, the Archives now was about to take the spotlight, though not necessarily by choice.

The Archives Finds Itself in the Watergate Saga

The decade of the 1970s brought public attention, both positive and negative, to the Archives, as well as some real and public changes in its role.

The agency learned that it was not immune to the kind of fires that had destroyed many early documents of the new nation. The most significant and destructive of these fires occurred July 12, 1973, at the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis on the top floor of the military personnel records facility.

The NPRC had come to be part of the National Archives in an unusual way. In 1950 the Pentagon decided to consolidate all the personnel and health records of millions of former soldiers, sailors, and airmen in St. Louis, and in 1960, the Pentagon turned over management of these records to the Archives.

The floor where the fire occurred contained some 22 million Army and Air Force personnel folders. Overall, fewer than 4 million records were saved, either in their entirety or with as little as one identifiable document.

The National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis

The National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis handles thousands of requests per year for military service records. A new facility replaced this one in 2010. (National Personnel Records Center)

Since then, NPRC has had an ongoing project to reconstruct these veterans' files using information provided by the veterans themselves and through medical records on file with the Veterans Administration. In this way NPRC personnel can verify dates of service for veterans and the status of their separation from the military—information that allows veterans to prove eligibility for government benefits.

The following year, after the Watergate scandal forced the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon, the National Archives found itself in the middle of this historic chapter in American history.

Nixon wanted to take all his presidential records with him and had made an agreement with the head of the GSA to do so. However, Congress balked and nullified the deal; the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act of 1974 authorized the government to seize Nixon's White House records and placed them in the hands of the National Archives.

Over the years, Nixon sought to have the records returned to him but had little success. The records remained in the Archives' hands, even after a private foundation opened a Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda, California, in 1990; it held many personal items and papers of Nixon but not his official papers as President.

In 2007, the private foundation turned over the Nixon Library and Museum to the government, and NARA staff took over administration. The papers now held by the Archives in College Park will be transferred to California when an addition to the library is ready.

To take care of matters like this in the future, in 1978 Congress passed the Presidential Records Act. This legislation designated all of the records of U.S. Presidents, beginning with the President who took office January 20, 1981, as the property of the U.S. Government and directed that they be deposited with the National Archives at the end of the President's term.

The end of the 1970s also saw, finally, the opening of the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, 16 years after the 35th President's death.

Gerald R. Ford was also building his library, and one of the people on the site committee was Robert M. Warner, a professor of library and information science at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where the library would be located. President Jimmy Carter named him Archivist in 1980, and Warner was on his way to Washington.

Timeline of Archives history

An Archivist Determined To Set the Archives Free

Bob Warner arrived in Washington as the sixth Archivist of the United States with a simple plan.

"Tackle Independence," was one of the first-year goals he set for himself, he would recall later.

Since 1949, when the Archives was folded into the GSA, the agency "remained in captivity," as Warner saw it. "A cultural institution dedicated to preserving the greatest documents of American history became a cog in the housekeeping wheels of government."

Warner recounted this historic time in the Archives history in his book Diary of a Dream: A History of the National Archives Independence Movement, 1980–1985, and in a 2005 Prologue article.

Archivist Robert Warner is presented with a reproduction of the act creating the National Archives and Records Administration

During a November 4, 1984, ceremony, Archivist Robert Warner is presented with a reproduction of the act creating the National Archives and Records Administration. (64-PF-11-8-84-A)

The three decades within GSA had changed the Archives. Its holdings contained many more records; it now had regional archives and federal records centers and presidential libraries all around the country; and it was facing a future in which it would have to figure out how to preserve records created by computers, which were slowly and haphazardly coming into use in the federal government.

Many Archives supporters in and out of government, especially those in the archival and history communities, who had opposed its inclusion in GSA in the first place now felt it was time to move to regain the independence it had enjoyed under Roosevelt.

Warner gathered his top aides and plotted strategy—in meetings conducted in secret because GSA was adamantly opposed to removing the National Archives from its fold. While they met in secret, professional groups of historians and archivists pushed for independence and found members of the House and Senate to take up their cause. Editorials appeared in major newspapers supporting independence legislation.

The secret and public campaigns worked, and Congress passed legislation freeing the National Archives from GSA, which President Reagan signed on October 19, 1984. "The good guys finally won," Warner wrote.

Effective April 1, 1985, the Archives was free at last, again. Now, the Archivist reported only to the President. Now, the National Archives and Records Administration, as it was newly named, could chart its own future.

A New NARA, Leading the Way And Setting the Gold Standard

The quarter-century that has passed since Reagan signed the National Archives independence legislation has been one in which the Archives, to a great extent, has reinvented itself.

Although independence meant that NARA could expand and grow as the leaders and professionals within the agency saw fit, the agency had little time to waste in attacking new problems.Traditional paper records continued to flow into the Archives in large amounts, so much so that just finding a site to store them was a challenge. Records were being sent to the Washington National Records Center in Suitland, Maryland, and to a leased building in Alexandria, Virginia.

refer to caption

The National Archives at College Park, Maryland, was dedicated in May 1994. (National Archives photo)

These temporary facilities did not meet the criteria for the storage of archival records set by the National Bureau of Standards. Repeated attempts to find support for a new building in the Washington area failed–until after 1985.

Planning for a new facility for the newly independent Archives began in the late 1980s, and the University of Maryland donated a 33-acre piece of land for the building. It became known as the National Archives at College Park. Ground was broken in 1989, and staff began the move in late 1993.

The 1.8-million-square-foot building was state-of-the-art in every way. It housed a great deal of records processing and storage areas, a five-level research center, conservation and special media laboratories, offices, and conference and training rooms. The building adhered to the new environmental and storage standards important for the long-term preservation of the records.

Today the College Park facility is a model among archives around the world, and foreign delegations often visit it not to examine its holdings but to learn about the building itself, which is an example of a modern archives that meets all the structural and environmental standards required of today's archives facilities.

Timeline of Archives history

Preparing for Digital Records With an Electronic Archives

The College Park facility also became the location for the preparation of work on the next big challenge the Archives faced.The era of electronic records was on the horizon, and technology was moving quickly. NARA officials had to determine how to preserve computer-created records that very soon would be as difficult to access as 78 rpm recordings, if not impossible.

The National Archives went online in 1994 with its first web site

The National Archives went online in 1994 with its first web site

During the 1990s, and especially during the Clinton administration from 1993 to 2001, the use of computers to produce official government records skyrocketed. Text documents, e-mails, web pages, and other kinds of electronic records all posed major challenges for an agency that during its first 50 years had dealt mainly with paper, print photographs, and videotape and film.

But technology was moving quickly, and the challenge was clear: figure out how to preserve records created with today's computer hardware and software so that they will be accessible with the hardware and software in use not just in a few years but many years from now.

After years of study, NARA senior staff and the handful of electronic records staff on board at the time decided to build what they called the Electronic Records Archives, or ERA. An ERA office was officially established in 2000.

ERA would take years to build and cost hundreds of millions of dollars. But the benefits could be far-reaching. The technology developed for the ERA can be scaled down for use by archives smaller than NARA, such as those in state and local governments, private companies, major libraries, and universities. The President and Congress supported it with generous appropriations, and in 2008, ERA took in its first records, from four pilot agencies. In January 2009 it began to take in the electronic records of George W. Bush's White House.

The Archives also entered into partnerships with several private companies to digitize thousands of traditional paper records, so they too, in time, will be available through the ERA.

Even as Archives officials were confronting the problems of storage capacity and the new kinds of records that were soon to come to NARA, events on other fronts were moving quickly.

A Rebirth for the Archives, And More Access to Records

The Richard Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California

The Richard Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California, was transferred to NARA in 2007, providing greater access to holdings related to Nixon. (Richard Nixon Library)

Now an independent agency, NARA in its last quarter century has seen a number of Archivists and Presidents come and go, as the need for more space for records increased at a rapid pace and older facilities required extensive renovation.Warner, who had led the battle for independence, resigned shortly after independence went into effect on April 1, 1985, and returned to the University of Michigan. Frank Burke, who had been executive director of the NPHRC, served as Acting Archivist for more than two years. Don Wilson, director of the Ford Library, was sworn in as the seventh Archivist in December 1987 and served until March 1993. Trudy Huskamp Peterson, who had been Assistant Archivist for the National Archives, became Acting Archivist, serving until May 1995, when John W. Carlin, a former governor of Kansas, was sworn in as the eighth Archivist.

Several new presidential libraries opened during this period.The Ford Library opened on the campus of the University of Michigan in early 1981, and the Ford Museum opened in Grand Rapids later that year; it is the only presidential library and museum to be located in two cities.Jimmy Carter opened his presidential library in Atlanta in 1986, and Reagan opened his in Simi Valley, California, in 1991. The George Bush Library in College Station, Texas, opened in 1997, and the Clinton Library in Little Rock, Arkansas, was opened in late 2004, with the transfer of the Nixon facility to NARA following in 2007.

A conservator works on the U.S. Constitution

In 2001 the Charters of Freedom were removed from their old encasements and treated as part of the extensive renovation at the National Archives Building. (National Archives photo by Earl McDonald)

The National Archives Building in downtown Washington, considered state-of-the-art when it was built in the 1930s under FDR’s watchful eyes, also got a top-to-bottom renovation.As part of the renovation, the Charters of Freedom were taken from the Rotunda to College Park and removed from their encasements for the first time since 1952. They received careful and painstaking treatment in the conservation laboratory and were placed in new titanium and aluminum encasements with various monitoring devices and filled with argon.

In the renovated Rotunda, all four pages of the Constitution, along with the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, are displayed at floor level, providing easier access for everyone to see and read the nation's founding documents.

The Rotunda, with new encasements for the Charters and the newly restored Barry Faulkner murals, was reopened in September 2003, with President George W. Bush, Chief Justice William Rehnquist, and top congressional leaders present.

Meanwhile, the Foundation for the National Archives, a nonprofit organization founded in 1992 to support agency activities that could not be funded with congressional appropriations, was at work on projects that would be lasting contributions to the National Archives.

A $23-million Foundation fundraising campaign provided support for creating new public exhibition space inside the building during the renovation in the 2003 to 2007 period. It was christened the National Archives Experience. It included the Public Vaults, a permanent multimedia exhibition that conveys the feeling of going beyond the walls of the Rotunda and into the stacks and vaults of the Archives; the William G. McGowan Theater; the Lawrence F. O'Brien Gallery, for temporary exhibits; and the Archives Shop. The Boeing Learning Center opened in 2007, and the online Digital Vaults went live in 2008.

Timeline of Archives history

Expanding Access to Records–And the Appreciation of Them

While the Foundation's work helped turn the Archives into a museum destination for visitors as well as a building where one would go for a look at the Charters of Freedom, the Archives' central mission remained that of steward of the important records of American history.

Records storage for both archival holdings and the records centers was an increasing problem, and NARA officials also looked to the regional facilities as part of the solution. Underground limestone caves in Lee's Summit, Missouri, and Lenexa, Kansas, were opened, and another cave in Valmeyer, Illinois, is now receiving records from the NPRC in St. Louis, which is also moving into new quarters in 2010.

In recent years, and especially in response to fires and flooding in several GSA facilities, NARA has moved into more modern GSA facilities, built to NARA's own environmental and structural specifications. In 2005, NARA opened its own facility in Morrow, Georgia, for the Southeast Regional Archives, next to the Georgia State Archives and the campus of Clayton College and State University. Today, it is one of 14 regional archives, many of which are in the process of moving to new locations that meet NARA's environmental and structural standards.

In addition to storage issues, there were access problems.

At the insistence of Archivist Allen Weinstein, a historian who succeeded Carlin from 2005 to 2008, the Archives began to emphasize "civic literacy" as a theme and made it one of its goals in its 2007 Strategic Plan. "If the American people do not maintain a solid and respectable measure of civic literacy," Weinstein argued, "they will not be able to understand or use the records effectively."

To complement his civic literacy campaign, Weinstein pushed for greater access to records and worked to establish new government-wide standards for the classification and declassification of records, with the Information Security Oversight Office as the lead agency on it.

In 2007, projects were launched to eliminate the backlog of 1 million cubic feet of unprocessed records received between 1995 and 2005. After two years, 37 percent of those records now have been processed and described. In 2009, NARA is hiring additional staff to increase the processing of records at the three presidential libraries subject to the Presidential Records Act of 1978—Reagan, Bush, and Clinton.

Increasingly, NARA's outreach is on its web site,, which has grown tremendously since it first appeared on the Internet in May 1994.

Today, the agency's web site contains images of tens of thousands of documents, and access, through the National Archives Catalog, Access to Archival Databases, and the agency's digital partnership with outside groups, to millions more. About 63 percent of all of NARA's archival holdings are described at the series level on ARC.

The web site also provides online exhibits, links to all NARA facilities, Prologue articles, and information for teachers and students, records managers, preservation and archives professionals, genealogists, veterans, and researchers of all kinds. An eStore offers NARA products, reproductions, and publications.

Where the Past Is Prologue

Franklin Roosevelt could not have seen what the institution he nurtured in its early years would become. But he was sure of its importance as the steward of the records of the nation's past, as he indicated in remarks at the dedication of his own library in 1941:

The dedication of a library is in itself an act of faith. To bring together the records of the past and to house them in buildings where they will be preserved for the use of men and women in the future, a Nation must believe in three things.
It must believe in the past. It must believe in the future. It must, above all, believe in the capacity of its own people so to learn from the past that they can gain in judgment in creating their own future.

For 75 years, the National Archives has preserved the records that guarantee the rights of Americans, document the actions of its government, and preserve the story of the national experience. With more than 3,000 employees nationwide, the agency stands ready to continue that role—on paper or computer screens, in summary form or great detail, in person or on the Internet.

The past that is prologue is in good hands.

Timeline of Archives history

Note on Sources

The purpose of this article is not to provide an account of every event, in every year, at every location of the National Archives. Rather, it is to give the general reader an overview of this agency's first 75 years. More thorough accounts of the National Archives' history exist, and many are listed below.

Timothy Walch, editor emeritus of Prologue and now director of the Herbert Hoover Library in West Branch, Iowa, and Bob Clark, supervisory archivist at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, New York, were especially helpful in the preparation of this article. Prologue is indebted to them and to all the other staff archivists and historians who, over the years, have worked to dig out from the records the story of this remarkable agency, often in the kind of great detail for which there is not room in this presentation.

Information for this article was gleaned mostly from books and articles about various periods on the history of the National Archives and from various Archives files and sources, including this magazine.

The National Archives: America's Ministry of Documents, 1934–1968, by Donald R. McCoy (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1978) contains a valuable bibliography as well as an account of the agency's first 34 years.

Also consulted were H. G. Jones, The Records of a Nation: Their Management, Preservation, and Use (New York: Atheneum, 1969), Victor Gondos, J. Franklin Jameson and the Birth of the National Archives (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981), and Robert M. Warner, Diary of a Dream: A History of the National Archives Independence Movement, 1980–1985 (Mutuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1995).

Primary source material is in Records of the National Archives and Records Administration (Record Group 64). Other relevant record groups include Records of the Office of Management and Budget (RG 51), the Commission on Fine Arts (RG 66), the Commission on the Organization of the Executive Branch (RG 264), and the General Services Administration (RG 269).

Quite helpful were the well-researched articles in Guardian of Heritage, a 94-page book edited by Walch for the 50th anniversary of the National Archives in 1985 but now out of print:

Also helpful were a number of articles that have appeared in Prologue. They are all posted on the Prologue website at

Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.